City Spotlight:: Raise a Glass to Literary Greenwich Village
There was a time when, throwing back a pint or two at McSorley’s or Kettle of Fish in Greenwich Village, you’d be likely to rub elbows with the likes of e.e. cummings, Jack Kerouac or Washington Irving. This month, we take you on a tour of legendary literary watering holes in the Village. We plan to pay an actual visit during our Publishing Business Conference Pub Crawl. Who knows, we may stumble across a future bestselling author!
The Birth of the Bohemians
With bestsellers in mind, perhaps the most famous literary hangout is the White Horse Tavern on 567 Hudson Street. This pub gained popularity during the bohemian movements of the 1950s and 60s. Originally the White Horse played host to longshoremen, but the lure of inexpensive booze soon drew the likes of Bob Dylan, Hunter S. Thompson, Jane Jacobs and Jack Kerouac. Kerouac was banned from the White Horse Tavern on several occasions, but that did not stop him from frequenting the institution, along with Beat cohorts Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.
The most notorious patron of the White Horse was poet and writer Dylan Thomas, who initially discovered this haunt. Essentially taking up residence at the tavern, Thomas was often found downing shots of whiskey while vehemently debating poetry and politics of the day. In 1953, it is said that Thomas's voracity went a bit too far and he consumed 18 shots of whiskey, dying two days later. Whether White Horse whiskey did the poet in or not, one can still find a plaque above the bar commemorating Thomas's final drink there.
The White Horse Tavern became an important locale for the editors of the Village Voice as well. Voice founders Ed Fancher, Dan Wolf, John Wilcock and Norman Mailer often met at the White Horse to talk business. Eventually, the men established offices only a few blocks from the tavern. The Pulitzer prize-winning paper is still an active part of the Village community, reporting on local and national politics, art, culture, film, theater and music.
Kettle of Fish, although less acclaimed, was another popular Beat hangout. Established in 1950, the bar welcomed artists and writers, including Kerouac, Ginsberg and Dylan. The bar has been immortalized by a famous photograph of the inebriated Kerouac standing in front of its neon sign. Despite the Kettle of Fish's many incarnations, moving from MacDougal Street eventually to 59 Christopher Street, it still holds on to its literary, divey roots. Not only can one still find the famous Kerouac photograph, but the sign itself has been moved into the bar, allowing patrons to create their own Kerouac moment. Should a visit fall on a Sunday during football season, though, literary enthusiasts should expect a crowd of diehard Packer fans disrupting any attempts to channel their inner Kerouac.
Writers of the Jazz Age
Before the Beats, there was the Lost Generation of the Jazz Age, who ushered in a vibrant literary era in the Village. It was not unusual during this time to see the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway and Ezra Pound carousing in the local establishments. A favorite literary drinking spot was the Black Rabbit, now Minetta Tavern on 113 MacDougal Street.
Although groundbreaking and often controversial writers like cummings, Louis Bromfield and Hemmingway frequented the speakeasy, the jazz-thrumming club also gave birth to the much less controversial Reader’s Digest, which rented out the basement to print its first issues in 1923.
Even faux-literary members of the Jazz Age called the Black Rabbit home. Joe Gould, who spent enough time at the speakeasy to have his mail sent there, often spoke of his massive in-progress work An Oral History of Our Time. Yet at the time of his death, no great manuscript surfaced, confirming a decades-old hoax. Although the Black Rabbit is no more, a reincarnation of the speakeasy sits at 91 Greenpoint Avenue in Brooklyn. According to New York magazine, “If the Coen Brothers were scouting for a Prohibition-era bar in Greenpoint, they’d stop looking once they chanced upon the Black Rabbit.” It was even recommended by the Village Voice, which perhaps lends some cred to its otherwise lacking literary history.
For a traditional speakeasy that (sort of) stands today, Chumley's, located at 86 Bedford Street, is a literary hotspot where writers and artists of the Jazz Age like William Faulkner, Eugene O'Neill and poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay sipped bathtub gin and bootleg whiskey. The walls are lined with book jackets, most written and autographed by literary regulars, and as the bar moved into the Beat Generation and beyond, photographs of famous writers like Ginsberg, John Steinbeck and J.D. Salinger were added.
Today Chumley's retains much of its Prohibition aesthetic, lacking any sort of signage above its front and side entrances and having a number of secret passageways. Rumor has it that the term "86" originated from Chumley's 86 Bedford Street address, and that the police would call the bar before a raid to inform the owner to "86" his customers, which meant that they should exit from the front onto Bedford Street while the police came in through the side entrance on Pamela Court.
Chumley closed its doors in 2007 due to a chimney collapse and is still working to reestablish itself as a bar in this residential Village block. An official opening date has not been set, though rumors suggest Chumley's may welcome patrons back in the coming year.
Nearly oldest bar in New York City, McSorley's Ale House, located in the East Village at 15 E. 7th Street, is known for its unchanging character. The bar became famous for its strict all-male policy, which was upheld from its creation in the 1850s until 1970 when the National Organization of Women filed a discrimination case against McSorley's. One of the bar's famous mottos was "Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies." Though the beer selection is limited (light and dark lager), McSorley's is generous with portions, serving two mugs of ale with every order as it has since it first opened.
Over the years the bar has attracted a number of writers and artists and in turn has inspired multiple creative endeavors. cummings wrote a poem about the bar in 1923, entitled "I was sitting in mcsorley's," describing the establishment as "snug and evil." Twelve years earlier, painter John French Sloan also felt the McSorley inspiration and painted the famous "McSorley's Bar." He returned in 1928 to paint "McSorley's at Home" and "McSorley's Cats,"Today the bar remains unchanged with memorabilia over a century old decorating its walls. Wishbones hang from the chandelier, supposedly remnants of World War I soldiers' final meals in the States before shipping out, Houdini's handcuffs are linked to the bar rail and Abraham Lincoln's chair from his 1860 visit sits proudly behind the bar. Every inch of McSorley's is a monument to Old New York, with occasional nods to the litearry greats that drank there.
Wherever one turns in the Village, literary history is present, quietly nestled on the walls of Minetta Tavern or boisterously proclaimed over every inch of a tourist-laden McSorley's. Regardless of physical commemorations, the ideas generated in these bars continue to thrive. They inspire us to write our own masterpieces. They give us the liquid courage to share new and untried ideas. Or, more simply, they allow us to appreciate fellow word-lovers, driving us to congregate in a cozy tavern corner, order a pint and appreciate the beauty of the written word.
Ellen Harvey is a freelance writer and editor who covers the latest technologies and strategies reshaping the publishing landscape. She previously served as the Senior Editor at Publishing Executive and Book Business.